Four year-old Mary, born into slavery, nearly lands her mama on the whipping post. The Van Leuws think that Mary has been taught to read, when, in fact, she remembers word for word everything she hears. Mistress Van Leuw's grown daughter, Bet, sees that Mary actually learns to read and write, buys her freedom and sends her to school in Philadelphia. After this schooling, Mary gives up her freedom for slavery. Returning to Richmond, Virginia, she works in the Gray House of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Mary plays the part of an ignorant slave, while relaying information about Civial War strategy to a Unionist spy network. With rich characters and many close calls, Leveen crafts this Civil War tale deftly, revealing the story of the real Mary Bowser and her efforts to abolish slavery... too late for her parents but perhaps in time for her own children.